The big tennis racket

Preview: Retelling of the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match never loses sight of the lowbrow silliness of it all.

April 16, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"When Billie Beat Bobby," writer-director Jane Anderson's endearingly lowbrow take on the fabled tennis match in which reigning women's tennis pro Billie Jean King beat former Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, understands the key to that much-ballyhooed contest:

It shouldn't have mattered at all.

Billed as the Battle of the Sexes, the match was, in fact, a silly thing, a P.T. Barnumesque bit of puffery - on a level with the time Muhammad Ali took on a Japanese judo champion. (And who remembers that?) So, the top-rated women's player in the world, 29 years old and at the top of her game, was able to out-play a 55-year-old male blowhard who hadn't won anything in nearly two decades. This is front-page news?

It sure was in 1973, and "When Billie Beat Bobby" reminds us why - while, at the same time, reveling in the foolishness of it all. Both Holly Hunter as King and a puffy-faced Ron Silver as Riggs capture their characters' spirit, and while neither appears to be much of a tennis player - all the close-up shots of feet and faces during the match itself suggest they're better actors than athletes - they, too, understand that "The Battle of the Sexes" was all about a huckster pulling off the con of his life, and someone finally coming along to call him on it.

Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, had by 1973 evolved into a tennis hustler; he had just enough tennis skills to bet some unsuspecting, egotistical rube $3,500 that he could beat him at tennis, even while wearing a raincoat and carrying an umbrella, and win the bet. He was, however, no tennis champ.

King, on the other hand, was, not only one of the best women players ever, but one who was determined to move the women's game out of the shadow of the men's. But she could appreciate an operator when she saw one, and she never took Riggs for anything but.

In fact, King never wanted to play Riggs in the first place, seeing little potential for glory in either winning or losing. But then Margaret Court accepted Riggs' even-I-can-beat-the-best-girl-tennis-player challenge and lost decisively. If the women's game was ever to be taken seriously, King had to call Riggs' bluff.

Fortunately, unlike Court, King walked into the Riggs-created sideshow atmosphere with her eyes wide open. She matched him jibe for jibe, played along with the pre-match one-upmanship the media so loved and savored every minute of it.

Which, according to Anderson's screenplay (written after consulting published reports and interviewing King; Riggs died of prostate cancer in 1995), freaked her opponent out.

In the world according to this movie, Court lost because she never imagined anyone would take this thing seriously, and was surprised beyond words when dozens of photographers and thousands of screaming fans showed up to prove her wrong. "She doesn't have a clue," Hunter's King whispers ominously as Court agrees to the match.

But King refused to flinch, or to enjoy herself any less than Riggs.

And therein lay the key that ensured Billie Jean King would win the match. She never took Riggs' challenge seriously, but she took her tennis very seriously - regardless of who she was playing. Riggs, who may have started believing his own bravado by the time the match started (as suggested here), never stood a chance.

Naturally, the audience for the match - men and women determined to see their champions emerge victorious - never seemed to get the joke. For reasons that now seem quaint but 28 years ago seemed vital, it mattered who won this game. King's victory gave women - especially women's sports - more of a morale boost than it ever should have. (Something similar, and far more deserved, happened when the U.S. Women's soccer team defeated China two years ago.)

Anderson displays a welcome feel for pop-cultural touchstones whose importance far outweighs their merit.

She wrote the script for HBO's wickedly funny "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" and shows similar command of the territory here.

Two minor complaints, though. First, she should avoid turning ham-handedly serious, as she does on occasion here - showing an airline pilot manhandling one of his stewardesses, for example, to underline the degradations women endure when men automatically assume the upper hand.

Also, it's a shame Riggs isn't around to offer his side of the story, or that Margaret Court and King weren't both interviewed. Court comes off as the most naive, prissy woman on the planet, while King - surprise - never seems less than sure of herself; she's the master of all she surveys.

And while King's take on Riggs is obviously affectionate - the two remained close friends after the match, often appearing together on television and serving as a sort of comic counterweight to the long-simmering Ali-Frazier feud - it would be nice to know whether an older, mellower Riggs would agree with his depiction.

Still, "When Billie Beat Bobby" is lightweight entertainment of the first order - fitting for a moment of history whose impact was far greater than its importance.

`When Billie Beat Bobby'

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. tonight (4/16)

Where: WMAR, Channel 2

In brief: A look at some historic silliness

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